The first time I went to Turkey, I was traveling with my mom. We might never have made it east of Austria were it not for the patron saint of Edmonds, Rick Steves. Under his benevolent guidance, Mom and I struck out for lands unknown. The trip began with a minor disaster: Our shuttle didn’t show up. We spent the first 40 minutes on the phone, being assured that our shuttle was delayed, but it would be there in five. At around the 50-minute mark, we called again. In a delightfully Kafkaesque twist, a new representative claimed he’d never heard of us, and that we didn’t have a shuttle reservation at all.
We hung up, screamed a little, called a cab, and were on our way to Sea-Tac less than an hour before our international flight was supposed to take off. Worst of all, we were driven by the only cab driver in the world to be scrupulously conscious of every traffic regulation on the books. We crawled to a stop outside the main departure gate, bolted to security and sprinted to the train with our shoes still in hand. We arrived just as the plane was supposed to be taking off and found that boarding had been delayed while they checked passports.
It wasn’t until we landed in Istanbul that everything started to seem real. We were picked up by a friendly driver who spoke no English. Charmed, however, by my ability to say “hello, how are you” in Turkish, he spent the drive helpfully pointing out new vocabulary words (“Tower! Fish market! Sea! Traffic!”). At the hotel, we were served Turkish coffee and effusively greeted by a young manager with a soul patch. The minute our room was ready, we dragged ourselves upstairs and collapsed in a stupor.
It was dark when I jolted awake. I had no idea what time it was, or why I’d awakened so suddenly. Then the call to prayer came again, rousing the true believers and anyone else who happened to be within earshot. I hadn’t noticed any nearby minarets on our arrival, but in the urban jumble of Istanbul it’s not uncommon to hear the mosques before you can see them. Wherever this one was, it was close. Afterwards, I was unable to fall back asleep, and so I sat up waiting for sunrise.
From that moment on, I had the acute sense of being somewhere very foreign. Everything seemed infused with a mystical quality: the geometric art carved into doors and shutters, the domes and minarets rising above the city, the Spice Market, the carts selling roast chestnuts or pomegranate juice. The rest of the trip fell along similar lines. I did some slack-jawed gaping at major tourist destinations throughout Western and Central Turkey. The whole experience felt like a dream, and I loved every minute. My only regret: missing my chance to try Starbucks Turkish coffee.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance to go back to Turkey in 2014. For six months, I’ve been teaching English at an Eastern primary school. In late October, my boss gave me time off to meet an American friend in Istanbul. My flight arrived before Colleen’s, so I made a beeline for the Starbucks. My city is a little too remote for such a high-profile franchise; I’m told we’re lucky to have Domino’s. Almost exactly two years after the first chance slipped through my fingers, I fulfilled a long-standing dream and drank a Starbucks Turkish coffee. Was it good? Not particularly, but that’s neither here nor there.
I was thrilled to see Colleen, but when we hit the streets, I was disappointed to find myself underwhelmed. The bazaar, the tea salons, even the mosque-studded skyline didn’t hold the same mystique for me. Istanbul looked like a bigger, more European version of my current city. It was swarming with tourists and people trying to scam the tourists. I bit my tongue to keep from complaining about how overpriced everything was.
This time around, our experience was shaped by the cultural knowledge I’d acquired. Asking directions was no problem. My food recommendations were infinitely better, and we ate cheese-based desserts daily. I accidentally triggered a Kurdish tea vendor’s patriotic spiel, and only after a lot of handshakes and being called “brother” multiple times in Kurdish was I able to extricate us. Later, I chatted in rudimentary Turkish with a baklava seller, told him where I lived, and was pleasantly surprised when he charged us less than half what the picky Germans in line before us had paid.
That first night at the hostel, Colleen and I slept restlessly. I was awakened around 3 when drunk Americans stumbled into our 12-bed dorm, and grouchy Europeans woke up to yell at them. I tossed and turned for the rest of the night. At breakfast the next morning, I’d just finished grumbling about the noisy revelers when Colleen said, “Actually, that barely woke me up. It was worse when they turned on the loudspeakers.”
“You know, the loudspeakers in the hostel. At maybe 5 a.m. Didn’t you hear it?”
“No! What did they play?”
“It sounded like a man singing in Turkish.”
That would be the call to prayer. Sure enough, when we got onto the street, we saw the minaret looming right over our hostel, so close it sounded like it was coming from inside our building. I hadn’t heard a thing.
For a traveler, the world is full of infinite possibilities. It’s hard to justify visiting the same place twice when there are so many new places to see. Sometimes, though, a little repetition is merited. There’s always a chance we’ll return to a place we’ve known and find it altered, even over the span of a few years. More often, though, it stays about the same. Use it as a metric, and it will show you the ways you have changed since the last time you were there. Travel is to know new places, but also to know yourself. Sometimes the best thing you can do is retrace your footsteps and finish what you’ve started.
– By Elijah Garrard
Elijah Garrard was born and raised in Edmonds. He is a graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and Bowdoin College, and is now based in Eastern Turkey. He writes about travel, people, and curious goings-on in his monthly column.